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Attorneys Allege Jury Bias

By ROB PHILLIPS - rphillips@nwherald.com

Imagine you’re picked to sit on a jury that will determine the guilt or innocence of an illegal immigrant who was charged with a crime. Could you decide the defendant’s fate and ignore his immigration status? Experts say that if jurors feel strongly about illegal immigration, which is true for a growing number of Americans, making an unbiased decision would be a nearly impossible task.

“You have to be almost inhuman to be able to put your own beliefs and your own predispositions aside to hear the evidence fairly,” said Art Patterson, a senior vice president and jury consultant at DecisionQuest, a national trial-consulting firm based in Los Angeles. “The reality is that there will be jurors on these cases who, despite their best efforts, will hear the evidence in a way that biases the defendant.”

Undocumented immigrants have the same rights in the judicial system as U.S. citizens when charged with a crime. But area defense attorneys said that it’s so tough locally to get a fair jury trial for a Hispanic that they think twice before taking cases to juries. McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi disagreed with the theory and said jurors could be fair no matter how they felt about immigration.

“With all of our notions and biases in life, by and large I feel people feel a certain responsibility to set those aside and do what they can to be fair and impartial,” Bianchi said.

Attorneys likely will ask potential jurors about their beliefs on immigration before the January murder trial of three Hispanic defendants. Attorneys representing each of the three men said they were unsure whether their client was in the country illegally. But all three defendants will need their own interpreters for the estimated three-week trial, which often results in people jumping to the conclusion that a person is here illegally even if they are not, said Carlos Acosta, executive director and co-founder of the McHenry County Latino Coalition. Similar probing questions were asked at a murder trial last month, which involved a defendant who was an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Jurors deliberated for 15 hours over two days before finding Jose Rodriguez-Tellez guilty of first-degree murder. Rosa De Loera, a juror in the Rodriguez-Tellez trial, said the fact that the defendant was an undocumented immigrant never arose during the deliberations.

“There was never a sign that anybody was being unfair just because he was illegal,” said De Loera, who was the only Spanish-speaking Hispanic on the jury. “We just felt that he was a person, and he was a human being. We looked at every aspect of the case. It wasn’t like we right away said, ‘Oh, he’s guilty.’”

Rodriguez-Tellez’s attorney, Henry Sugden, said that if the jurors didn’t openly discuss the fact that his client was illegal, it’s tough to believe that they weren’t thinking about it during deliberations.

“They may not have brought it up, but it definitely was in the back of their heads,” he said.

Acosta said that he agreed with local defense attorneys and doubted that Latinos, especially those that speak only Spanish, could face an unbiased jury in the county.

“I think people may sit back and say, ‘If he didn’t commit this crime, then he obviously committed another,’” Acosta said.

If a problem does exist, it won’t be fixed quickly or easily, sources said. Acosta said that although De Loera’s comments were a positive sign, he thought it could take years before undocumented residents are judged fairly.

“It used to be, does the right skin color make you a person, and now it is, does the right immigration status make you a person,” Acosta said. “Judge a person on their character, not by their paperwork.”

Patterson, a social psychologist who has been analyzing juries for more than 25 years, said that attorneys and judges must go further in questioning potential jurors to ensure that defendants were treated as fairly as possible. Patterson pointed out that American juries first were composed of only white males who owned a certain amount of property.

“We have become a much more heterogeneous society,” Patterson said. “The courts are going to have to dig deeper to prevent juror bias. We don’t want a totally unbiased or vanilla jury. What we want is a jury that doesn’t contain jurors who will vote against one side or another no matter what the evidence shows.”

Located in Crystal Lake, Illinois, the lawyers at Madsen, Sugden & Gottemoller, Attorneys at Law, represent clients in McHenry County, including the communities of: Crystal Lake, McHenry, Waukegan, Woodstock, Algonquin, Lake in the Hills, Cary, Elgin, Dundee, Barrington, Harvard, Marengo, and Johnsburg.

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